Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki insisted on Thursday that Poland would never limit the freedom to debate the Holocaust amid an escalating row with Israel over legislation in Warsaw that would criminalize claims of the Polish nation’s complicity in the Holocaust.
“We will never limit the freedom to debate the Holocaust,” Morawiecki said on the Polish state television TVP, according to a Reuters translation.
The premier also indicated Poland was aware of Israeli concerns over the bill, despite going ahead with it days after agreeing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold talks with Jerusalem over its contents.
“We understand the emotions of Israel. We need a lot of work to make our common, often complicated, history possible to tell together,” he said.
The bill, which passed the Polish Senate early Thursday, could see individuals facing up to three years in prison for intentionally attempting to falsely attribute the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish nation as a whole.
It was approved by the lower house last week. The bill has yet to become law as it requires the approval from President Andrzej Duda, who has supported it.
Although the bill exempts artistic and research work, it has raised concerns that the Polish state will decide itself what it considers to be historic facts.
Israel has reacted furiously to the law, postponing the planned visit of Poland’s national security adviser Pawel Soloch and reportedly considering recalling its ambassador.
Soloch was scheduled to travel to Israel on February 4-7, with a planned visit at Israel’s official Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.
Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party authored the bill, which states: “Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich… or other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the actual perpetrators thereof, shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.”
Law and Justice says it is fighting against phrases like “Polish death camps” to refer to death camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.
Israel, however, sees the legislation, with its wide-ranging provisions, as an attempt to cover up the role some Poles played in the killing of Jews during World War II.
“Everybody knows that many, many thousands of Poles killed or betrayed their Jewish neighbors to the Germans, causing them to be murdered,” said Efraim Zuroff, a prominent historian on the Holocaust and the Eastern Europe director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, on Sunday. “The Polish state was not complicit in the Holocaust, but many Poles were.”
The dispute, which erupted over the weekend, has elicited bitter recriminations on both sides. Some Israelis have accused the mostly Poles of being driven by anti-Semitism and of trying to deny the Holocaust. Poles believe that they are being defamed by being linked to German crimes of which they were one of the largest group of victims.
Israel, along with several international Holocaust organizations, and many critics in Poland, argues that the law could have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression and leading to a whitewashing of Poland’s wartime history.
Netanyahu has pilloried the law as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”
Netanyahu spoke to his Polish counterpart Morawiecki Sunday night, and the two “agreed to immediately open a dialogue between staffs of the two countries, in order to try and reach an understanding over the legislation,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office read.
Amid the dispute some Polish commentators, including in government-controlled media, have made strong anti-Jewish remarks.
In one instance, the head of a state-run channel suggested referring to Auschwitz as a “Jewish death camp,” in response to an outcry over use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the Nazi killing site in German-occupied Poland.
On Wednesday, a US Congressional taskforce on combating anti-Semitism said it was “alarmed” by the legislation and called on Polish President Andrzej Duda to veto it.
“We are deeply concerned that this legislation could have a chilling effect on dialogue, scholarship, and accountability in Poland about the Holocaust, should this legislation become law,” the bipartisan group said.
The lower house of the Polish parliament approved the bill on Friday, a day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, timing that has also been criticized as insensitive.
Duda on Sunday sought to defuse the crisis by promising “a careful analysis of the final shape of the act” focused on provisions that have alarmed Israel.
However, the next day Duda told public broadcaster TVP that he was “flabbergasted” by Israel’s “violent and very unfavorable reaction” to the bill.
“We absolutely can’t back down, we have the right to defend the historical truth,” he said.